The Last Dance is your third book inspired by Greece. What is it that inspires you the most: the places or the people?
Definitely both. Quite often the starting point is the atmosphere of the place, or a situation. It intrigues me usually because it is something very different from UK life. After that my invented characters take over and they are influenced by people I see or whom I have met. I do find Greek people very inspirational because they are such a contrast to the British (perhaps more exaggerated, more colorful, more passionate than people in the UK).
Does this book consist of true stories? Did you meet/chat with people who after that became your stories heroes?
All of my characters and stories are fictional. The starting point is often something real - for example with the story about the kafenion - I was sitting one day in a village up in the mountains in Crete and realised that there was an almost identical cafe opposite the one I was sitting in and the people there seemed to be looking at the rival cafe with suspicion. For me, that was a great "beginning" to a story. In the UK in a small village there is only ever one pub - but in Greece there are always several - and the possibilities for competition, jealousy, politics and so on are huge - and great dramatic material for me as a storyteller.
When did you first visit Greece and what was your first impression?
I first came in 1976. And it was love at first sight. I went to Athens that August with my mother and my sister and I adored the heat, the dust, the chaos. After a few days we took a boat to Paros and I felt I had arrived in paradise. Compared with the sea in England (cold, brown, dirty), the waters were clear, blue and warm. We collected tiny shells on the beach and I still have them in a matchbox more than thirty years later! I had my first taste of fresh fish, stuffed vine leaves, water melon. It's hard to convey to a Greek person how utterly incredible those things seemed and to have them for the first time as a teenager was life-changing - and totally magical. And I never take them for granted, even now.
In this book you on of the stories is about the relationship between parents and children. Is this relationship different in Greece and in the UK?
Yes, it's very different. It's one of the big differences between the Greeks and the British, I think. Greek parents seem to try and keep their children close, almost "on a string" sometimes. Most of my friends here live near their parents (often in the same building) - this has advantages but also many disadvantages I think. The British encourage their children to be more independent, I believe. We push them out of the nest so that they can learn to fly. I think our family bonds in Britain are not quite as strong, but also we don't suffer from the family "claustrophobia" that I sometimes sense here. The wisest "guru" of parenting (and relationships generally) is Kahlil Gibran who says: "Your children are not your children, They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself." We should all pin this to our wall!
How did your relationship with your parents form your personality and your career as a writer?
This is very complex. My relationship with my mother is a beautiful one, but with my father (who died a few years ago) it was not so. The simple answer is that these relationships have a massive effect on us for the rest of our lives, being loved teaches us to love, for example. On a more pragmatic level, the writing “gene” comes from my father (my grandfather, great grandfather, uncles etc on my father’s side were journalists) so I think I owe that to him.
This relates closely to my answer above. It seems in Greece that when you marry someone, you marry their family too, but the idea of being told what to do by the “in-laws” really horrifies me... BUT let me confess something! I know I am becoming more Greek in my thinking because I dream of my children falling in love here and getting married (I am writing this in Crete, so “here” is Greece), so maybe one day I will be a “pethara”!
You have said that you look at Greece in a different way than the Greeks themselves. So, what does this country look like in your eyes?
Greece is still as beautiful as it has been for thousands of years. I definitely see Greece in a very positive way, and although I see many signs of suffering, I am certain that this crisis will not last forever. History tells us that Greece experienced several periods of great difficulty in the 20th century and survived. It’s painful but it is true and I remain optimistic for my friends.
Do you feel that, being a best-seller writer, every book you write has to be better that its precedent? Does this stress you?
Ideally, we should all get better and better at what we do. So it would be nice to think that my books get better. I am determined to keep things in perspective and to remember how lucky I am. When I get stressed about my writing, I remind myself that there are teachers trying to teach without books, nurses without enough drugs to give their patients, people losing their jobs. This is reality in Greece, this is real stress.
Do you believe in happy endings?
Most (but not all) of my stories have some kind of happy ending but they are also beginnings - the story continues in the reader’s imagination (and “off-stage” in the characters’ lives). In a sense the “ending” is just a moment, when things are temporarily resolved. In real life, happiness is quite fleeting and I believe we need to recognise and appreciate happy moments. Take marriage for an example, it is often the “happy ending” of a fictional story - but it’s a beginning isn’t it, not an ending?
What do you fear and what do you wish for in life? Are these fears and wishes included in your stories?
My greatest fear (and it dwarfs all other fears) is that anything bad should happen to my children. I wish for creative inspiration, because without this I would stop writing and I wish for happier times for Greece - even though there is no magic wand for this. And yes, I think all my wishes and fears are in my writing, hidden in there somewhere.
If your British friends asked you which place to visit in Greece this summer, which one would you suggest?
I am in Crete - so I would say “come and stay!” - and after a few days, I would tell them to pack up again and travel - to other islands (Hydra, Kefalonia, Paros, Patmos, Skyros, Spetse are a few of my favourites) - but also to go to the mainland, to the Peloponnese or to the mountains near Arta, or to Pelion, all breathtakingly beautiful.
*Originally published in Greek at OK! magazine.